The sun’s heat in Ghana is unforgiving, especially for in-the-field surveyors who stand outside to collect customer data via questionnaires and interviews. This traditional method of obtaining information about customers, while very personal, is inefficient: paper-and-pen surveys can lead to incomplete or misunderstood data; making business decisions with limited information leads to missed opportunities and limited impact.

Data collection across many parts of Africa has always been challenging. Resource constraints and financial limitations hinder efforts. With poor market knowledge, the surveys are sub-optimally designed, and the focus on quantity over quality has undermined their purpose.

Having insight into your market is critical for making smart business decisions, but how does an African business collect the right type of data and use it properly?

The answer is mobile technology. Africa leapfrogged over other forms of communication, straight to mobile phones. Worldwide, phone subscriptions rose from under 1 billion in the year 2000 to more than 6 billion in 2012 – 5 billion of which are in emerging markets. With mobile phones as a primary means of communication for many people, businesses now have a clever and cost-effective way to directly reach consumers.

With mobile technology, surveys can be quickly deployed by SMS or mobile app, and responses are collected automatically for faster analysis and results. The dynamic nature of the technology lends itself to more efficient survey design and therefore more refined data, allowing for more educated decision-making. Today, data collection is more consistent and accurate, and can include a greater range of insights, from big-picture market information to customer-specific purchasing habits.

Data collection has also evolved to be more actionable, which allows decision-making to have a more immediate impact. Through predictive analysis of purchasing data, for example, businesses can send relevant and timely personalized messaging, such as push notifications, to engage consumers and differentiate themselves from competition.

Big data is often seen as a strong driver for making smart business decisions. Take Nigeria-based Delivery Science, which uses big data to help local companies solve supply-chain and logistics problems. The company gathers information about products, locations, routes and workflows through linked devices, then it analyses the information and helps clients develop informed strategies to increase revenue and reduce loss.

Small data, more granular information, is just as important when it comes to making smart business decisions. IBM, for example, partners with other organizations to deploy technological solutions for global problems. One of these allows consumers to report cases of the Ebola virus by telephone and SMS. This small data, coming from a single person, can help IBM mobilize life-saving healthcare services and deliver important resources, such as hygiene products, for an entire community.

Small and big data can be combined to help support smarter decision-making. In cash-based markets, where transactions are not recorded, obtaining point-of-sale information can be near impossible. However, mobile-based product verification tools such as Sproxil’s Mobile Product Authentication can serve as surrogate purchase data: when a consumer verifies the authenticity of their product, they are indicating a purchase made. The data can provide big-picture insight on purchasing trends related to peak times and days, seasons and holidays, helping businesses plan marketing initiatives and optimize product delivery. It can even help businesses identify areas of suspicious activity, allowing for more directed anti-counterfeiting initiatives.

Point-of-sale (small) data can also have an impact on an individual level and spread to affect the larger community. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50% of the medication prescribed is not fulfilled, meaning that people are not properly adhering to their medical needs. By sending patients timely refill and dosage reminders, businesses can support healthcare and well-being. The individual impacts the whole: healthy people save care costs, are more productive and more able to commit to the responsibilities of family and community.

While data has been limited across the continent, African businesses must see it as a driver to their market success. They should consider what they currently collect, how they use it to measure success, what other ways they can monitor their progress, and what data is needed to fill in the gaps.

Small and big data are particularly important for social enterprises, which rely on information to measure their impact, identify opportunities for growth and reduce risks. While big data can help them understand their broader social impact, small data can help them see how progress and efforts on a more granular level can shape the bigger picture. Understanding how to access and use this data can help businesses make better decisions, which further the social mission.

But technology is not the only answer, even in mobile-friendly countries across Africa. Many social enterprises do not internally generate the data to clearly measure their impact or they don’t have the means to analyse the information. This is where outside help is crucial. By accessing the data of other organizations, social enterprises tap into resources and insights they would not be able to otherwise. They can also learn from other organizations that have tried to solve similar problems in their target markets.

Previously, gathering reliable data in Africa was difficult. Now, organizations can use modern collection methods to tap into new insights to make smarter, more informed business decisions. With big and small data, African businesses are better placed than ever to ensure their own success.

Author: Ashifi Gogo is Chief Executive Officer of Sproxil.

Image: Governorship candidate of People’s Democratic Party Jimi Agbaje (C) talks on his mobile phone as he stands in line at the beginning of voting for governorship election in Apapa district in Lagos April 11, 2015. REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye